Asceticism and Piety of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA)

Asceticism and Piety of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA)

The Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra), understood in the course of his lifestyle of (application of) the Noble Qur’an, his attachment to the trustworthy Prophet ﷺ, his companionship with the noble Companions, and from his reflection on life that the world is the home of trials and tribulations. ‘Ali (ra) was trained upon the Book of Allah and he comprehended the Verses which speak about the reality of the world and relate its meanness, its pettiness, its transient nature and the swiftness with which it passes away, as well as the Verses that awaken keenness for the Hereafter and relate its honour and eternity, such as Allah’s Statement (which means):

وَٱضْرِبْ لَهُم مَّثَلَ ٱلْحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا كَمَآءٍ أَنزَلْنَـٰهُ مِنَ ٱلسَّمَآءِ فَٱخْتَلَطَ بِهِۦ نَبَاتُ ٱلْأَرْضِ فَأَصْبَحَ هَشِيمًا تَذْرُوهُ ٱلرِّيَـٰحُ ۗ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَىْءٍ مُّقْتَدِرًا • ٱلْمَالُ وَٱلْبَنُونَ زِينَةُ ٱلْحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا ۖ وَٱلْبَـٰقِيَـٰتُ ٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتُ خَيْرٌ عِندَ رَبِّكَ ثَوَابًا وَخَيْرٌ أَمَلًا

“And put forward to them the example of the life of this world: it is like the water (rain) which We send down from the sky, and the vegetation of the earth mingles with it, and becomes fresh and green. But (later) it becomes dry and broken pieces, which the winds scatter. And Allâh is Able to do everything. Wealth and children are the adornment of the life of this world. But the good righteous deeds, that last, are better with your Lord for rewards and better in respect of hope.” [Qur’an 18:45-46]

He was nurtured at the hand of the Prophet ﷺ who was the most knowledgable and the worthiest of all creation since it was he who said: “If the world were the worth of the wing of a fly with Allah, a Kafir (disbeliever) would not have been given a drink of water.”[1] He also said: “The world compared to the Hereafter is no more than a similitude of one of you dipping a finger into an ocean, let him see what it returns with.”[2] He also said: “The world is a prison for the believer and paradise for the disbeliever.”[3]

The Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali (ra) was influenced by the Qur’an and the training he received from the Prophet ﷺ, about which Allah says (what means): 

كَمَآ أَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولًا مِّنكُمْ يَتْلُوا۟ عَلَيْكُمْ ءَايَـٰتِنَا وَيُزَكِّيكُمْ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ ٱلْكِتَـٰبَ وَٱلْحِكْمَةَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُم مَّا لَمْ تَكُونُوا۟ تَعْلَمُونَ

“Similarly (to complete My Blessings on you), We have sent among you a Messenger (Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم) of your own, reciting to you Our Verses (the Qur’ân) and purifying you, and teaching you the Book (the Qur’ân) and the Hikmah (i.e. Sunnah, Islâmic laws and Fiqh – jurisprudence), and teaching you that which you used not to know.” [Qur’an 2:151]

This is illustrated by the astonishing example of asceticism set by him. These are some examples:

‘O yellow (gold) and white (silver), beguile someone else’

On the authority of ‘Ali ibn Rabi’ah Al-Walibi who related that Ibn Nabah once came to ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra) and said to him: “O Commander of the Faithful, the treasury is filled the wealth of the Muslims (comprising) of yellow and white.” ‘Ali (ra) said: “Allahu Akbar!,” ” then he rose supporting himself on Ibn An-Nabah till he went up to the state treasury and said:

These are treasures, the best of it is in it

A criminal is he who eats of it (wrongly)

“O Ibn An-Nabah invite for me all the parties of Kufah.” So the people were invited, he distributed all that was in the Muslim treasury while he was saying: “O yellow (gold) and O white (silver), beguile someone else other than me, here, here,” till there remained not a single Dinar or Dirham. Then he called for his basin and he made ablution and offered two Rak’ahs. In another narration by Abu Na’im: ‘Ali (ra) used to sweep the treasury and he would pray in it and he took it as a prayer place in the hope that it would bear witness for him on the Day of Resurrection. 

In this is an eloquent example of disdain for the chattels of the transient world. The treasury was filled with gold and silver and the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali (ra) did not look at it with a look of admiration and pride; rather, his response when the financial supervisor informed him was: “Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great)!” While some people admire the world and magnify it, Allah is Greater than it and everything. If the Muslims truly understands that Allah is Great, why then does he make his heart submissive to what is smaller?

This is a great insight and reminder from the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali (ra) when he recollects the ignominy and worthlessness of the world and he extols the Greatness of Allah the Exalted.

These words chide the one who is deceived by the chattels of the transient world and forgets that Allah, the Great and Exalted, is Greater than anything else. It is the fine scale which is perceived by the believer whom Allah has illumined with His insight. Each time he testifies that Allah the Exalted, is Paramount and Greater than anything else in his heart, the world and all there is in it become most despicable to him and he utilizes lawful wealth in obedience of Allah.

We find the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali (ra) towering on the horizon of splendor while addressing the world thus: “O yellow (gold) and O white, beguile someone else other than me.”

A sentient and sensitive conscience perceives the world as an adversary that beguiles and tricks its opponents, thereby announcing its triumph on the refractoriness of the soul and its reign over his intellect, which accords the world its appropriate magnitude. Our attachment to the world is circumscribed by the extent of the distress and comfort it offers. Such a conscience accords the Hereafter its appropriate esteem owing to the fact that it is eternal, and due to the greatness of its comfort and the terror of its Hellfire. We find him (‘Ali – ra), attaining an exalted rank when he prayed two Rak’ahs in the Bait Al-Mal so that it may be a witness for him on the Day of Judgement that he was just in his rule and upright in his command. Perhaps in his taking the Bait Al-Mal as a place of prayer lies a token of the sublimity of the Hereafter over the world, and a testimony to the superior conduct which he pursued in spending that wealth in the proper manner that is legislated.[4]

“By Allah, I have not prejudiced you concerning any of your wealth’:

The stance of the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali (ra) in asceticism and piety. is exemplified in the incident related by Harun ibn Antarah from his father who said: “I visited ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra) at Khoornaq (a place in Kufah) while he was trembling (due to cold) under a tattered sheet and I said: “O Commander of the Faithful, Allah has given you and your household a right in this wealth and you are treating yourself in this manner!” Then ‘Ali (ra) responded:’ “By Allah I have not prejudiced you concerning any of your wealth, it is the sheet which I came out with from my residence (or he said from Madinah).”[5] 

At this point, let’s ask ourselves, what impelled the Commander of the Faithful to live the life of the poor, enduring the biting cold while he was able to buy the most magnificent warm clothes on the surface of the earth? This is an example of true asceticism, having avoided the chattels of the world in spite of his ability to amass it. He was a student of the Prophetic school from where he was nurtured upon asceticism concerning the chattels of the transient world and upon competing for the felicity of the everlasting Hereafter. Allah’s Messenger ﷺ had also lived the life of the poor while he was capable of becoming the wealthiest person.[6]

‘He sold it to me with my pleasure and it was taken with his pleasure’:

On the authority of Abu Matar ibn Abdullah Al-Juhani who said: I saw ‘Ali (ra) wearing a loincloth (Izar) wearing a Rida (upper garment) and he held a staff as if he was a Bedouin Arab. Then he mentioned his entering the market and bargaining with one of the traders over a garment of three Dirhams and that when the trader recognized him he refused to buy anything from him. He went to another trader who also recognized him and he did not buy from him either. Then he came to a young boy and he bought a shirt from him for three Dirhams. When the boy’s father came and he told him, the father took one Dirham and went to ‘Ali (ra) with it. When he got to him he said: “Here is one Dirham O Commander of the Faithful.” ‘Ali (ra) asked him: “What about this Dirham?” The man said: “The actual price of the shirt is two Dirhams.” ‘Ali at said: “He sold it to me with my pleasure and it was taken with his pleasure.”[7]

This is an example of the asceticism of the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra). His appearance was like that of a Bedouin Arab due to the coarseness of his apparel. When he was purchasing a cloth for himself, he chose an unpretentious type whose price was cheap in spite of the fact that at the time, he was the highest sovereign in the entire world, when he was the Caliph of the Muslims. This points to his humility and asceticism in the world knowing well that he had a right in the Fay’ and in the treasury and other sources of state wealth of what is due to those charged with responsibility, such as the Caliph and ruler for their maintenance of the interests of the Muslims.

Another example of piety and circumspection for the religion (is seen) when he refused to buy from those who could recognize him so that they may not reduce the price for him due to his position. He did not want to exploit his great position for personal benefit. This shows his fine understanding in the field of piety and fear of Allah. The caliphate, to him and his likes, was a righteous deed and the Caliph who was concerned with justice is one of the seven whom Allah will shade under His Shade on the Day of Resurrection. Thus, he did not want to sully this righteous office with worldly benefits so that it may not become a means of earning sin instead of reward. With this lofty deportment, he was an excellent role-model for those who came after him.’[8]

‘The heart is fearful and the believer follows it’:

Umar ibn Qays said: It was said to ‘Ali (ra): “Why do you patch your dress?” He said:  “The heart is fearful and the believer follows it.”[9] This is from his asceticism, as well as his desire to train the Muslims in the life of asceticism and austerity. There are two noteworthy things in his wearing a patched dress: First, that it is a means to instilling piety in the heart, humility in the soul and indicating remoteness from vanity and pride. Second, by this, he will be considered a role model for the Muslims. When the people see him wearing a patched cloth though he occupied the highest position, their own hearts too will be humbled and they will distance themselves from competition in buying expensive clothes and so that the ascetics might be strengthened, that is, those who are susceptible to the disparagement and rebuke of the people for their ascetic life.[10]

‘Nothing is permissible for the Caliph from Allah’s wealth except two bowls’:

On the authority of Abdullah ibn Zurair Al-Ghafiqi who said: I visited ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib, (ra) and presented to us Khazirah (chopped boiled meat sprinkled with flour). I said to him: “May Allah improve your situation, I wish you could present to us something better than this duck (meat). Allah has increased (us) in goodness (wealth).” ‘Ali (ra) said: “O Ibn Zurair, I heard Allah’s Messenger ﷺ saying: “Nothing is permissible for the Caliph from Allah’s wealth except two bowls, a bowl from which he and his family eat and the other bowl he places in front of the people.”[11]

Here the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra), lay a lofty example in piety and asceticism regarding the chattels of the transient world of food and drink. It was possible for him to take anything he wanted from the wealth of the treasury without attracting anyone’s attention to himself since the sustenance equal to the standard of the rich Muslims was guaranteed for him. However, he maintained a simple lifestyle and preferred the Hereafter to the life of this world and circumspection in matters of religion in order to live up to his role of a righteous model. This is because if he as the highest person in the state were to live according to this standard of living, it would serve as a consolation to the poor to exercise patience and be pleased with the decree and predestination of Allah and an admonition for the rich to be grateful to Allah and be careful not to engage in self-indulgence and extravagance.[12]

‘I do not like that anything enters my stomach except what I know’:

The Commander of the Faithful (ra), used to finish the bag containing barley flour from which he ate and he used to say: “I do not like that anything enters my stomach except what I know.”[13] Sufyan said: ”Ali never used to mount jar over jar, he did not mount brick over brick or even reed over reed even though his grains were brought in sack from Madinah.”[14]

‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra) was the most ascetic of the people concerning the world:

Al-Hasan ibn Salih ibn Hayy said: The ascetics were mentioned in the presence of Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz and he said: “The most ascetic of the people concerning the world was ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib.”[15] Adh-Dhahabi has mentioned that ‘Ali (ra) once rode a donkey while his legs dangled on one side and then said: “I am the one who has demeaned the world.” (His action here is as a form of practical training in asceticism and piety and a disdain for the world and not from self-conceit).[16]

Abu Ubaid also related in Al-Amwal that ‘Ali distributed stipends three times in a year and when wealth arrived from Isbahan, he said: “Assemble the following morning to receive the stipend for I am not your treasurer.” So, some people collected it while some others refused it.[17] ‘Ali (ra) addressed the people thus: “O people, by Allah beside Who none deserves to be worshipped in truth I did not deprive you of your wealth whether small or large except this,” and he took out a bottle from the sleeve of his shirt containing perfume,. He said: “It was given to me by a Dihqan (the chieftain of a foreign land).” Then he went to the Bait Al-Mal and said: “Take and he began to say:

Successful is he who has a pack

From which he eats a date everyday.[18]

Asceticism is one of the conspicuous attributes of the personality of the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib (ra). His asceticism was in inspite of the profuse means of luxury and affluence, and the great respect, trust and reverence that people had for him which would prevent any criticism, calling to account and censure. His asceticism, piety and rigidity in his religion did not result in the slightest boorishness, uncouthness or moroseness in his personality, and he was never glum and taciturn. Rather, he was tender-hearted, cheerful and engaged in humorous banter.

From his reported features is that: he was handsome to look, was cheerful, and moved with a gentle gait on earth.[19] He also defined asceticism. He said: “O people! Asceticism is having short hope, gratitude for favours and demonstrating piety in the face of prohibited things.”[20] The word “short” in the context of one’s hopes (which means limited hopes) is the opposite of long hope, which makes a man forgetful of the Hereafter. As for its shortness, it is reconciling between the world and the Hereafter in quest of the pleasure of Allah. As for gratitude for favours, it is an attribute the righteous Muslim who is conscious of the favours of Allah on him, material and non-material, those which are apparent or obscured. Thus, he meets them with gratitude to Al-Aziz Al-Wahhab (the All-Mighty, the Real Bestower).

This definition from the Commander of the Faithful clarifies the reality of asceticism and there is no doubt that the asceticism of the Commander of the Faithful influenced those around him and he became an influential institution of learning in the history of the Ummah. Abul Hasan An-Nadwi has tied asceticism with the rejuvenation of the Islamic society when he said: “asceticism and rejuvenation go hand in hand in Islamic history. Thus, we knew no one who went against the prevalent trend, changed the course of history, breathed a new spirit in Islamic society or opened a new epoch in Islamic history and left behind an enduring treasure in knowledge, thought and religion that influenced people’s thoughts and views for generations and held sway over knowledge and behavior except that he had a predilection for asceticism, had control over his desires and held sway over material and men. Perhaps the secret in that is that asceticism enables a man to possess the power of resistance, self-esteem in personality and belief, disdain for materialistic men, victims of desires and captives of the stomach.[21]

[The Biography Of Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) by Dr. Ali Muhammad As-Sallabi, p.435-445]


[1] Sunan At-Tirmidhi no. 4110, Sahih li ghairih.

[2] Muslim no .2858.

[3] Muslim no .2856.

[4] Taarikh Al-Islami 12/ 427 by Al Humaidee.

[5] Hulyat Al-Auliyaa 1/82 and Sifat As-Safwa.

[6] Tarikh Al-Islami 12/ 428

[7] Az-Zuhd p. 130

[8] Tarikh Al-Islami 12/ 429.

[9] Tarikh Al-Islam ,ahd Khulafaa ar-Rashidin p. 647 of adh-Dhahabi.

[10] Tarikh Al-Islami 12/430 by Al-Humaidi

[11] Musnad Ahmad 1/78, its chain is authentic as stated by Ahmad Shakir but

there are those who adjudge it weak.

[12] Tarikh Al-Islami 12/ 431

[13] Al-Kamil fi Taarikh 2/ 443

[14] Al-Kamil fi Taarikh 2/ 443

[15] Tarikh Al-Islam Ahd Al-Khulafaa ar-Rashidin p. 645

[16] Taarikh Al-Islam by adh-Dhahabi p. 645

[17] Kanz Al-Ummaal 2/ 320

[18] Al-Murtada by An-Nadwi p. 212

[19] Al-Murtada of An-Nadwi p. 213

[20] Ali ibn Abi Taalib, Muhammad Rashid Rida p. 304

[21] Rijal Al-Fikr wa Da’wah in his discussion on Al-Imam Ahmad 1/105

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